Denial Is the Only Thing We’re Prepared For

Photo: Gail Shumway/Getty Images

A major, worldwide pandemic is finally here. Luckily, we Americans have been training for this moment for our entire lives.

Of course we haven’t been training for it with careful planning and pragmatic strategies for navigating an utterly transformed world, or steeling ourselves for the worst, or becoming tougher under duress, or learning to cope with our anxiety and our fears by staring straight into the darkness and grappling with the lessons it holds for us. Wow. Have you even met us? Do you know us at all?

We Americans have been training for this pandemic with denial. From the minute we were born, our culture has taught us to embrace fantasy at every turn, over every other option available to us. From our first day on Earth, we were ushered into a culture so vacuum-sealed against grappling with harsh realities — poverty, suffering, oppression, war, sickness, aging, dying — that even the faintest whiff of these things incites vertigo immediately. It’s not that many of us aren’t or haven’t been poor or suffered or been oppressed or sick. It’s just that the American profit-driven, marketing-and-entertainment-curated bubble tricks us into believing that we’re still in control, we can still find comfort, we can still escape somewhere. The mall will never close, the internet will never go dark, we will live forever, and our lives will grow happier and richer and more fulfilling by the year.

The seemingly cell-level metabolism of these illusions is hard to study or observe or quantify, because they pervade our understanding of everything — finding true love, locating a career you’re passionate about, owning your truest self and letting it shine out in the open, traveling, looking great, having tons of friends, starting a family. Americans are sold a vision of our “best lives” from the time we’re children, and even as sweeping world events and deeply flawed systems chip away at that vision — with recessions, terrorism, endless wars, insecure jobs, disordered families, fractured friendships, corrupt leaders, large-scale disasters, a total void of safety nets — the cultural gaslighting continues apace. And the moral of every story is that if you’re not overcoming this shitstorm on your own, without any help, that means that you’re willfully turning your back on your best life at every turn.

So no wonder most of us are in denial now. Refusing the comforts of denial is not only difficult and awkward against the backdrop of a denial-loving culture, but if we do so, many of the people around us will immediately inform us that by merely addressing reality, we are being ridiculous, or overreacting, or actively choosing to be miserable. 

Our current crisis takes our mundane, everyday level of denial and magnifies it to a grotesque degree. Now we can witness, in real time, how denial works to flush out every hint of reality — not just passively, but actively, aggressively, as if one’s very delicate emotional health and survival depends on it. (For many of us, it does!) Everywhere I went this week, I was surrounded by people who could not speak of the pandemic without retreating to the safety of shared misinformation and clichés. Quickly it became clear which of us had yet to experience sickness, extreme poverty, racism, political oppression, trauma, or death in their own lives, but also which of us had grappled with these things, but had only done so with the soft filter of denial in place.

And who wouldn’t choose to cling to such a filter, if it’s available? Because our culture is extremely hostile to words like, “I’m going to die,” even when they come out of the mouth of a person with terminal cancer. Our culture is allergic to anyone who might mourn their parent’s death for longer than, say, a week or so. We don’t mark losses, beyond a quick “Bummer! Now get over it, the clock is ticking!” We don’t notice or discuss failures, unless we’re trying very hard to shame someone into the ground. We don’t accommodate any event that incites a sensation of losing control. Hell, our culture doesn’t acknowledge that a loss of control is even possible.

Even sacrifices like the ones people made after 9/11 or during the Second World War were always painted as short-term fixes that would make everything right again — heroically so. Many people who still remember the losses of World War II and Vietnam and social upheaval of the 1960s, or those who feel the oppression of racism every day, inside their bones, no matter where they are or what they’re doing, have also been spoon-fed a broken story about overcoming obstacles and being your best, a story rooted in fantasy and escapism and a robust and continual avoidance of mortality. Most Americans you meet, if you say the words, “This looks really bad,” will answer, without missing a single beat, “Everything will be fine.”

Discussion over. It’s all good. Have a nice day!

Living in America, you really have to be fixated on disaster and injustice and systemic negligence and corruption and other slowly unfolding, large-scale calamities in order to begin to address how much denial you’re still swimming in, every single day, just by dint of living in this culture. You have to be interested in and even attracted to social ostracism, in fact, to tell people what you know, out loud. Because if you observe reality using words in mixed company, most Americans are going to roll their eyes and treat you like you’re neurotic, paranoid, obsessed, a socialist (how is that a bad word?), a misfit, a loser, a soft-pawed, privileged emotional weakling, a lightweight, irrational, a dreamer, a Chicken Little.

If you mention death, you’re dreary. You must be obsessed with mortality. Poor, depressing you! If you mention sickness, you need to look on the bright side immediately. If you mention poverty, you need to get off your ass and work harder. If you use the word “capitalism” in a negative or critical fashion, you’re a commie and you hate greatness. If you talk about catastrophes of the past, you’re trying to torture everyone around you. If you discuss preparing for the worst, you’re a cliché of trashy, nutball, bunker-mentality paranoia. If you clarify your point using information you read in the news, you’re a snotty elitist living in a bubble of privilege.

And if you simply resolve to make up your own mind, to take all of the good sources of information available to you and draw your own conclusions on the best way to proceed  — taking into account expert advice and the historical failures of systems and leaders alike — well, watch out. Because even if you don’t proselytize or say a word to anyone about it, guess what? You’re already not only doing it wrong, but you’re offensive to everyone within a six-foot social-distancing radius.

Why? Because denial. Because when you say, “I am working hard to avoid death because I know that death is a possibility,” or “I am working hard to avoid a very unhappy ending because I know that disasters do sometimes happen,” or “I am working hard to protect my family because helping us actually helps more vulnerable populations in the case of COVID-19,” you might as well be aiming a bullhorn at someone’s face and yelling into it, “YOU’RE GOING TO DIE IMMEDIATELY! DO SOMETHING, DO SOMETHING, DO SOMETHING!”

Like many others out there, I’ve been following COVID-19 news avidly since mid-January. It wasn’t until about mid-February that I started to worry. Reports of asymptomatic transmission began to comingle with the possibility of a 27-day incubation period and a higher death rate than previously imagined. On February 21, I said to a close friend, “This coronavirus thing is about to take over our entire lives.”

“No, it’s not!” he practically spat at me. “That’s absurd!”

So I told him to read every single thing he could find on the coronavirus, and when he was done, we’d have a conversation. “I read the paper!” he yelled at me.

I smiled and bit my tongue and that was that. I could go on about the reactions of friends and acquaintances since then, but you already have anecdotes of your own, and this isn’t about spreading blame at a time of extreme stress — unless you want to spread blame to the leaders whose solemn duty was to start preparing for this event months ago, but instead they rolled their eyes and sat on their hands and then actively misinformed the already-denial-embracing public. The bottom line is, people are acting unhinged out there. They are saying disturbing things. They are pushing back harder than ever on anyone who wants to talk about what’s happening or who just wants to make sure that they’re prepared.

You can refuse to explain yourself. I recommend that. But people get curious about that, too. They want to know why your actions suggest that you do not seem to agree that the flu is scarier than the coronavirus, and that you do not seem to trust the schools to make good decisions about social distancing, and you do not seem ready to let your kids go to the mall, and you might just cancel your upcoming vacation, too. Most will keep asking questions about these things without offering their own positions or the information that they’ve read. And even when you’re not keen to explain the last two months of reasoning and information-gathering and emotional soul-searching, and you also don’t want to dive into the deeply life-changing experiences with death and sickness in general, and your asthmatic child in particular, with them, watch your step. Because once you say the word “asthma” at all, you’ll quickly be informed that everyone has SOMEONE in their family with asthma, the logic being that, I don’t know, you should be doing exactly what they’re doing, maybe? And not doing what they’re doing is an insult to them? And you’re insensitive for mentioning it, even after they specifically asked you about it?

The details are beside the point, though. Because, ultimately, in a denial-based culture, any movement away from the herd is insensitive and offensive. 

Whatever you do, though, don’t send links to articles you’ve read. It is passive-aggressive and offensive, somehow, to pass along information you found useful. Inside the simulation, spreading information is the exact same thing as spreading fear. So even though you’re mostly just concerned with people allowing their aging parents to die horrible deaths and allowing their children to become unknowing vectors of disease, don’t pass along the message from the Italian doctor who explained the irresponsibility of refusing to engage in social distancing, and the recklessness of not understanding how overwhelmed Italian hospitals are right now, and what it means to flatten the curve. In lieu of explaining my choices (which everyone seemed to want explained to them), I sent out that article to the parents of my kids’ friends. Only one of them wrote back. “Please stop dumping this crap on us,” he texted.

Please note the story you’re reading was published more than a day ago. COVID-19 news and recommendations change fast: Read the latest here to stay up-to-date.

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Denial Is the Only Thing We’re Prepared For